By Gale Renee Walden
When my daughter Zella was two, she stuck a small American flag with a shiny gold point up through the palate of her mouth and into her nose.
It was a summer evening. We were home alone, in the basement. I was doing laundry; she was right next to me playing. And then suddenly she was screaming; there was a lot of blood coming out of her nostrils and mouth and that flag was hanging. Then the screaming stopped and there was a moment of silent and shocked surprise in which we both looked at each other, eyes wide—she, as it turned out, surprised at the outcome of what had been meant to impress me in the same way her eleven-year-old cousin had impressed her the day before, saying, “Look, no hands.” On my end, I was trying to put together what had happened. I’d always thought there were contexts in which the American flag could be dangerous, but my laundry room wasn’t one of them.
My daughter was wearing only diapers at the time, and I don’t remember which one of us removed the flag, but the next thing I remember was running with her out on the street. My instinct was to run to the calmest neighbor I had, a mother with two toddlers, and she didn’t let me down. She answered the door, took in the situation, and reappeared with a red washcloth, saying, “My mother told me when you have children, you need a supply of red washcloths.”
By the time we got to the emergency room, the blood had stopped and somehow I thought that might be the end of that. A young doctor came in with a flashlight, looked up in my daughter’s mouth and said, “Oh my.”
“I bet you see things like this all the time,” I said, seeking reassurance. Things swallowed and stuck into various openings; this is a part of childhood.
He whistled and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” and then, as if quoting from a Denis Johnson short story, “I’m not going to touch this. I’m calling the eye, ear, and nose specialist.”
When he returned he said, “She is scheduled for surgery at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. Take her home, and don’t let her drink anything.”
Before he left, he asked, “It was an American flag?”
Even in this, I thought, we are going to have nationality questions. Did he really think an American flag wouldn’t do that much damage to a child? Or did he expect her to be waving a Chinese flag?
My daughter is Chinese. I am not. This is something that surprises me over and over, even though it’s obviously a fact I know. Sometimes I look at her and I don’t notice anything other than her: she, presence, other. Sometimes I look at her and she looks like Mao. It’s one of her faces; she has a Mona Lisa face, a Buddy Hackett face, a Madonna face and the Mao face. I am always searching for things my daughter and I share—we don’t come close in hair or eye color—and it’s probably an outcome of this quest that I read my daughter’s Mao face as a physical similarity. I, too, have a malleable face, and one of my faces unfortunately resembles Richard Nixon. All children have a Buddy Hackett face, just like all babies, when they cry, sound a little like Neil Young, but this morphing into less-than-ideal political leaders, surely that is unique to our family.
At home that night, I yelled at the flag, which for some odd reasons wasn’t bloody. “I don’t want to see you ever again,” I said, and I went to throw it away and then remembered there was something about needing the National Guard and a whole ceremony in order to get rid of a flag and I ended up sticking it in some high far away cupboard.
“Ow,” Zella said in her sleep: “Ow. Ow. Ow.” The next morning the eye, ear, and nose specialist informed me that the only way he would be able to see the extent of the damage and what needed to be repaired was to put her under anesthesia and go in. He also informed me that the only possible side effect of the surgery was sudden death. “It’s a slight risk,” he said. “At her age, about one in a thousand.”
This didn’t seem like great odds to me. I could envision one thousand people, could envision the eenie, meenie, miney moe of chance.
“There are substantial risks if we don’t do the surgery, of brain infection, of lifelong sinus problems,” the surgeon said, “and we can’t wait. Scar tissue is already forming.”
I signed the consent forms.
My mother, a nurse, was in the waiting room with me. “This is why I got out of Peds,” she said.
“Boy did you make the right decision,” the surgeon said when he came out of the operating room to assure me she was waking up. “She pushed that thing in deep. But we have it stitched up now.”
When, the day after the flag incident, worried neighbors came to the door wondering what happened the night before, I tried to imagine what I must have looked like, running, mouth opened in a silent scream, carrying a half-naked bleeding child, and the image I got is an image I grew up with—of Vietnamese women running from war with their babies. What doesn’t fit in the image is not my daughter, but me with my blond hair.
Zella and I live in Urbana, Illinois, where many of the sidewalks and some of the streets are still made of brick, where globed lights shine out at night, and where huge trees that have survived tornadoes, ice storms, and disease drape themselves like a canopy over wide streets in summer.
Because Urbana is a Midwestern town and privacy is as essential as a front porch is in some neighborhoods, it’s possible to pass the same people year after year, on the street, or at the gas station, and ignore them in the same way you always do, while simultaneously noting the different hairdo, the slight aging of the faces. Sometimes without any formal acknowledgment strollers appear, sometimes double strollers, and you say, “Oh, you had a baby” or “Oh my gosh, twins!” to people you don’t even know, and they realize you knew something about them and now know something more about them.
All these rules of privacy change in the grocery store. I’ve seen people crying in the grocery store, people making out, people screaming at their children, and people getting arrested, things that aren’t usually visible on the street. It’s a type of theatre amidst rows of the mundane, of Whisk and Dawn and toilet paper.
The grocery store was also the place I first noted that the community at large was not going to automatically connect me to Zella. It was in the grocery store that I realized, like all parents who put their children in day care, that Zella had a life apart from me. I’d be wheeling her around in the grocery store, and in aisle two someone I’d never seen before would say, “Hi Zella,” and then a different someone would say, “Hi Zella,” in aisle four, while ignoring me. Zella never responded, just rode along in the little basket like she was in a parade.
As Zella began elementary school, both her secret life and my knowledge of it became more pronounced. “Did you see Zella interviewed on the five o’clock news?” my aunt once called to ask.
“Zella? Where was she? Why were they interviewing her?”
“She supports the troops,” my aunt informed me. “She was welcoming them home. She had on a USA headband that she made. It was very nice.”
This was the second time Zella had been interviewed on television without my knowledge. Before someone told me about the fine print in the camp and school documents we are always signing, giving them permission to use our children’s images, I started to get worried that no one was checking with me because she was a kid who didn’t seem like she had parents. Of course that’s not really it. Everybody with a second grader at that elementary was surprised to see her child on television. But someone told me once that adoptive children belong to the village that Hilary Clinton is always talking about, and, I have to say, when I saw Zella’s portrait on the front page of the newspaper while walking by the newsstand, I thought, well, maybe she’s the town kid.
I named my daughter Zella after my grandmother. She was not my biological grandmother, having married my widowed grandfather when she was forty. Never having had children herself and having stepchildren too old to parent, she took on the role with more ardor than my other grandmother. She made me call her Grandmother rather than Grandma, a title that fit her formal sense of order. “My girl,” she would call me, after we had finished setting a china table or embroidering a quilt, and I liked being claimed in that way. No one else called me “my girl,” though, in retrospect, no one else had to. Their relations were a given.
This is what I want my relationship to my daughter to be: a given. And what it will never be. There will always be people in grocery stores when we travel; who will say in front of her, “Where did you get her?” There have been people in grocery stores who, when she was really young, asked in front of her, “How much did she cost?” as if she couldn’t understand English. When Zella was three, she was walking in front of me at a large store when an employee with a name badge tried to steer her to an Asian couple at the check-out line, saying, “There are you parents, honey.” I managed to intervene, but not before three people were perplexed. This public attempt either to separate child from parent, or reunite family units is really about race and not adoption. My friend Bev, whose adopted children are from Russia, is never questioned about their origin, and my Irish friend Bill, whose son’s mother is Chinese, is continually asked where he “got” his biological son.
When I go places with my niece Claire, who has light curly hair like mine, I see the difference in the response; people assume she’s my daughter. Once, when I informed someone she wasn’t, the person argued with me: “But she looks exactly like you.” Once when I had both of them out together, a man pointed at Claire (who was doing nothing but being blond) and said to me, “Good job,” while ignoring Zella completely.
I can’t stay away from these people because I don’t know where they are going to pop up. I learn to smile through them or to educate them, or, if it looks like they might say something insensitive, to pre-empt them.
Zella too, learns this. When, at six, she introduced me to one of her little cohorts as “my adoptive mom,” I was a little surprised, and kidded with her: “Your adoptive mom?” But when I went to have lunch with her at school the next day, a seven-year-old boy came up to me, and, as if Zellla weren’t there, said: “Are you her mom?” Zella was silent. I said yes. “Well, you are white,” he said, and then squinted his eyes toward Zella, “and she seems to be Spanish or Chinese.” He walked a little closer to her and considered some more: “I guess Chinese,” he confirmed, and then shrugged and held out his hands as if to say: “Explain that.”
I did, and the little boy nodded seriously, but all the while Zella remained silent, looking ahead, and I thought, for the first time really, about how she, in her life away from me, is probably required to explain our relationship constantly. She was being efficient when she introduced me as her adoptive mother.
By the time Zella was four, we had become firmly connected to one another, at least in the local grocery store community eye. I lost my real name and became known as “Zella’s mom.” I had to develop an expression which showed slight embarrassment and wry amusement along with great fondness (something like the expression everyone on 60 Minutes is required to wear after one of Andy Rooney’s commentaries) when Zella would stop at the “aquarium” to talk to the lobsters before moving onto the meat section (the farm), where she would sing two different refrains of “Old MacDonald,” moving from the beef to the pork when she came to their respective counterparts in the song and arriving finally at the muton chops, where she would conclude her serenade with “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Pretty much everyone except for the butcher was charmed, although I admit I once saw a couple waiting for rump roast turn away. My daughter is no vegetarian, and I thought what she was doing in her ritual was similar to some Native American proverb I once heard, the gist of which was you don’t get off the earth without doing harm, so you should bless the harm you are going to do.
Make no mistake. My daughter is an American girl. A girl who not only waves flags, but impales herself with them. But she is also a girl whose ancestors are buried in another country. Many of mine are buried down the road. Both sets of my grandparents were from this area, and I’m always running into relatives I’ve never met, many of whom, especially the ones who fought in the Korean War, seem surprised to find themselves attached in any way to an Asian Child.
Once, when Zella was a baby and I was out of town, my parents put her between them to sleep, just as they did with me when I was young. My mother said she woke up and looked at the scene and had a thought that prompted her to start laughing and wake my father up. “Don,” she said, “if a psychic had said when we were young, ‘I see you at sixty-five sleeping with a Chinese baby’ we wouldn’t have believed her.” Although Zella is pleased to have an extended family here, consisting of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, as she’s gotten older she also feels fairly free to remove herself from that family if their beliefs don’t match hers, switching pronouns from “ours” to “yours” at will, a freedom I myself have never experienced. “Why is everyone in your family against dragons?” she asked me on her seventh birthday, referring to a fundamentalist, iconoclastic member to whom everyone else acquiesces to avoid fights.
“It’s not that they’re against dragons,” I said. “I think they just don’t understand them.”
“Well I do,” she said.
She understands dragons; she understands animal symbols; by the time she was four, she knew she wanted to study Chinese. A part of her imagination resides in historical China. A part of mine resides on Route 66 and with the JFK administration—both idealized memories preferable to our real current countries. China, it can’t be denied, values boys over girls, and America, well, we’ve got some basic problems here too. I try to teach her about the country of my imagination, but I’ve been too embarrassed to tell her about my first imagining of hers.
Like many children in my generation, I was under the impression that it was possible to dig to China, and I would spend hours trying to make a hole big enough to see the golf conical hats I was sure would be on the heads of the family I would find down there, sitting around the table eating rice. It was heartbreaking and frustrating never to actually meet them, because in my imagination, they were there, just under the next scoop of dirt and sand.
Looking back on this I am amazed, not only by the collective gullibility of all the children who participated in this venture, but also by the parents who exploited this gullibility. And I’m kind of jealous. Obviously, I can’t just tell Zella to go dig to China because it would be cruel and politically incorrect, but also because we as contemporary parents just don’t have the freedom to stick a kid and a shovel out into a yard for hours. We have playdates.
My daughter was not even an American citizen when she stuck that flag up her nose. She had a green card and a tiny red Chinese passport, because, even though I had adopted her as a baby two years before, she was required to go through a naturalization process, which, can take years in some states.
On his way out of office, President Clinton signed a bill giving immediate citizenship to foreign-born adopted children, and I was surprised at how happy it made me to formally share a country with my daughter, how happy it made me that Zella was able at last to become an American citizen. On the day she became an American citizen, shortly after her third birthday, we had a cake with several little flags sticking out of it. “Remember the hole?” she said. And later that year, after 9/11, when flags proliferated up and down our street, it became almost a mantra: “Remember the hole? Remember the hole?” Of course I remembered the hole, and there was new emptiness at the World Trade Center site I was thinking of almost constantly in those days, but there was another hole I also remembered, a more metaphorical one that had to do with a missing child. I was someone who had always wanted children and—through relationship infertility rather that physical infertility—was giving a hard time getting to them. For years, during my thirties, there was a child or children I was searching for, but figuring out a way to call them to me was as frustrating and seemingly as futile as digging to China.
That night, after the party, after the cake, after the flags, I sat down to write my memories of the day. Zella sat next to me coloring. I wrote about how I was glad to have something else to share with her, another reinforcement of the permanent and legal commitment we made when she was six moths old, at the U.S. embassy in China. When the officer had ordered me to raise my right hand, Zella, who couldn’t really sit upright, somehow had managed to raise her right hand while I took the oath, and the promise we made transcends a lot.
After I printed out what I’d written, Zella stopped coloring and asked me to read it to her, and I did. Even at three, her perceptions were acute. Ever since Bush II came into office, she has insisted on calling him “The Magistrate” after the ruler in Amy Tan’s cartoon, Sagwa of China. At first I corrected her, but she was adamant, and after enough time went by, I agreed that we needed a new title for our forty-third president. She had also been practicing “reading” New Yorker cartoons to me, making up her own captions for the cartoons, which often times were funnier and made more sense than the real captions.
So when, after I had read the pages aloud to her, she reached for them, saying, “I’ll read it now,” I handed them to her. I was curious to see what she would make up for this story, this child who hadn’t started to worry things in her head yet, and who doesn’t yet know all the narratives and images of race, biology, nationality, and loss we are going to have to negotiate. Here is what she, my daughter, my girl, told me it said:
“And then she became a Momma. The End.”
Author’s Note: Zella is eight now, and as the dialogue about adoption, both international and domestic, becomes more open, we don’t face as many questions as we used to. Still, we live in a culture that almost fetishizes biological ties (watch any soap opera and see how one DNA test automatically a family makes). I wanted to consider the topic of adoption in writing, partially because in our day-to-day life it’s a minor or negligible issue. My major experience of parenthood: stepping into what you couldn’t have imagined, and being delighted to find out your imagination didn’t have the largeness, or the vision, or vocabulary to define what has become the goodness of your life.
Brain, Child (Winter 2007)
Gale Renee Walden lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her 15-year old daughter, Zella, and their dog, Junebug, and is currently writing a memoir.